This past Tuesday marked the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg address. It was a well-crafted speech written as a dedication of what became the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation at the start of that year and the success of the Union soldiers at Gettysburg just months prior, the war would rage for another year to year and a half before a Confederate surrender. There would continue to be too much blood shed and too many lives lost before the Civil War would come to its conclusion.
I was reminded of this milestone anniversary of the Gettysburg Address listening to NPR on Tuesday. I might have paid little notice to it, though, if it hadn’t been for experiencing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem just days prior.
Last Saturday evening, I was nothing short of blown away by a superb production of Britten’s War Requiem. Now full disclosure, I’m sure part of what contributed to my being “blown away” was the fact that my daughter was among those selected to sing in a teen choir that sang the Boys Chorus parts. That was awesome! But, proud parent moment aside, this was the first time that I experienced the entire composition live, and I was deeply moved by the work. Though not a Jewish work by any means, it served as a poignant reminder that we – Jews too – often have our priorities mixed up in terms of what and how we remember and how we mark communal loss.
Britten takes the traditional Latin funeral Mass, a deeply religious, specifically Catholic memorial text and combines it with the English poetry of Wilfred Owen, an officer in the British Army during World War I who wrote expressively and honestly about the human experience of war before being shot himself just days before Armistice Day. He was 25. The juxtaposition of the religious Mass text and Owen’s insightful and graphic poetry provide Britten a canvas on which to convey the reality of war: its horror, brutality, and ultimate futility. He, of course, was speaking of World War II. He could have just as easily been speaking of our nation’s Civil War, a war that despite the ideals Lincoln insisted upon, still on the ground ravaged our country and caused too many individuals and families to become intimately acquainted with violence.
Hearing Britten’s War Requiem just days before the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address underscored a sad irony.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation.” How many of us memorized these words. In speaking about the blood shed, the horror, that took place on the very land he was called forth to dedicate, Lincoln said, “…The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here….”
I dare say that the power of Britten’s work lies in the very fact that we too well can forget. Lincoln was mistaken. We have preserved the words of his dedicatory address well. I’m not so sure we have done as good a job in remembering what he believed we could never forget, namely the humanity behind the battles of war.
Next week, we have the remarkable opportunity to simultaneously celebrate both our Jewish and our American identity. We value – we cherish -- both. Neither has come without cost, without a cost born mostly by others who came before us. As we prepare to light the candles in our Chanukiah and gather for our Thanksgiving feasts, let us take a moment to reflect on the sacrifices so many have made in an effort to forward their and our ideals. May we never become blind to the efforts and even the blood-shed that allowed for this country to be a safe place for us, the Jewish community. May we never become blind to the efforts of those who fought and continue to work for racial and gender equality in this country and abroad.
Moreover, as we reflect, may we remember the mandate of Lincoln’s address, “It is for us, the living… to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion….” Almost a century after Lincoln’s address, and not longer after the horror of World War II and the Korean War, John F. Kennedy challenged us again to step forward, “let’s begin,” he exclaimed, “let’s begin” to tackle the unfinished work of accepting responsibility for the problems that humanity has created and that ail us – all of us.
To paraphrase Peter Yarrow’s popular Chanukah song, we must not let the light of Lincoln's or Kennedy's ideals diminish. As we conclude this week of remembering speeches, may we remember the actions that inspired them. We do grave dis-service to their memory and the memory of those whose lives were lost in war if we be anything but motivated to continue to work towards equal opportunity in our country for all peoples. We must work to ensure that religious freedom extends to all, and that no one remains enslaved and shackled. This is our duty – as Americans. This is our duty as Jews.